'I’ve been waiting for this:' Families react to missing Indigenous persons alert system law

Washington has made history on Thursday-- the state has become the first in the United States to create an alert system that will help find missing Indigenous women and people. Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1725 into law, which will launch the advisory.

On the historic day for Washington and tribal members across the state, emotions were torn.

"I’ve been waiting for this and it’s been four years and we don’t have any answers still," sobbed Lavern Jones.

She is the mother of 22-year-old Kyle Jones Tran. He was a member of the Tulalip Tribe, killed off of the reservation on April 3, 2018. As she approached the fourth year of his death, she brought a piece of him while sitting in the audience at the Tulalip Resort and Casino to watch Inslee sign the new alert system into law.

"Now this is bringing more awareness to Native people and for the reservation. And there’s a lot of injustice done. I have had to tell my 9-year-old daughter that people are out there —and it’s everywhere and every race —where kids are abducted and it’s happening more," said Jones.

With the governor’s signature, Washington is the first state in the country to create an alert system that will broadcast information about missing Indigenous people, similar to the Silver Alert. There will be messages on highway signs, advisory radio channels and regional media with notifications to help find them.

"We know the pain families go through when you’re missing someone. It tears the fabrics and the hearts of the whole family, obviously the women who may be subject to violence as well. And it’s a pain throughout multiple communities and it’s a pain across Washington state," said Inslee. "It’s something we all understand—a loved one when they go missing, nothing can be more traumatic. This will put the resources and the help of Washingtonians to help these Indigenous women."

All Indigenous people who are missing will be added into the alert system. The idea was created by the attorney general’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force. The group was recently formed to make systemic change surrounding the disappearance and killing of Indigenous people in Washington, like Jones’ son.

"He was in a domestic violence relationship and none of that was reported. So, I just feel that he wasn’t given justice or a proper investigation of his death," said Jones. "I’m a domestic violence survivor and it kills me knowing that that’s probably what my son died from."

For so long, Indigenous families have been doing the work themselves trying to find their missing loved ones. Jones said even her family conducted their own investigation into her son’s death. Indigenous families said the biggest challenge is not having access to resources. Some of them said they have faced discrimination from law enforcement.

Research conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute states Seattle has some of the highest rates of murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. The researchers also found Tacoma has some of the highest numbers of missing Indigenous people. 

A 2021 report by a government watchdog found the true number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. is unknown due to reporting problems, distrust of law enforcement and jurisdictional conflicts. But Native American women face murder rates almost three times those of white women overall — and up to 10 times the national average in certain locations, according to a 2021 summary of the existing research by the National Congress of American Indians. More than 80% have experienced violence.

In Washington, more than four times as many Indigenous women go missing than white women, according to research conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle, but many such cases receive little or no media attention.

There are more than 110 women reported missing in Washington state. Officials said those numbers could be higher as so many cases are underreported. It’s also men whose cases go unheard. Jones said she hopes the alert system will be one of the resources to help protect Indigenous people, and share the stories of the lives no longer here.

"Since I believe my son was murdered, now I have to be his voice because he’s not here to tell his story. And, we don’t know what happened to him, we didn’t get any answers, we didn’t have any agencies talk to us about what happened," sobbed Jones.

Inslee also signed five other tribal bills into law on Thursday. This includes protections and services for Indigenous people who are missing, murdered or survivors of human trafficking, as well as a law for tribal consultation when using funds authorized by the Climate Commitment Act.

Attorney General's Office launches Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force

The Washington State Office of Attorney General has launched the new Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force.

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